To Live For the Words: A Response to the Debate of Story Vs. Style

If you ask most people why they read, they will invariably respond, “I like the stories,” or “to lose myself in a good book,” or even, “to meet interesting characters.” Each one, however, seems to suggest that the essential quality of a book is its story, the escapist factor that would make sitting in isolation for an hour or more an inviting prospect. It’s amusing to think about: reading is staring at marks in a book over and over again, while sitting still, and trying to block out the surrounding world—an almost impossible with 2016 racket. And yet these little marks can make an entire world rise beneath our feet, carrying us to far-away places, or transforming our perspective of the work-a-day world. Each one increases our collective wealth, so we horde them like a treasure-mad dragon, salivating over each bauble, even if we’ve polished it a thousand times.

However, this overlooks one important aspect of reading: we often don’t remember the story shortly after we’ve read the book. Or, we might recall the outline, and some of the characters, but not the intricate ins-and-outs of the plot. Most of it vanishes like smoke, only to be recalled by cracking open the book and retracing our steps. Why is this? If we love the story so much, why is it so elusive, so forgettable? Even our favorite stories, ones we’ve read a few times, exist as shadows in our memory, flat and one-dimensional. I would argue that as much as we love the story, it’s not really stories we’re looking for. The stories are great, naturally, but you can never separate the teller from the tale. That’s the real reason we keep reaching for new books to store away in our reading vault: the stories come and go, but the storyteller is what excites our imagination, since a good storyteller makes us forget what we know about the world—and creates it anew. That’s the reason authors exist in the first place; otherwise, everyone would still be “anonymous” and the story, rather than its creator, would hold center stage.

The great mythologist/writer, Joseph Campbell, explained this idea when talking about the hero’s journey:

“The influence of a vital person vitalizes, there’s no doubt about it. The world without spirit is a wasteland. People have the notion of saving the world by shifting things around, changing the rules, who’s on top, and so forth. No, no! Any world is a valid world if it’s alive. The thing to do is to bring life to it, and the only way to do that is to find in your own case where the life is and become alive yourself” (The Power of Myth 149).

Though talking about a hero, this could easily be a storyteller, who in our modern world is a hero—braving the dens of rejection and writer’s block to snatch forbidden stories to save the world (or our boredom). As Campbell suggests, any story is a “valid world if it’s alive.” So how does a story become alive? The story itself is dead on the page without someone powerful telling it. Look at the basic plot of a Shakespeare play: a young man wants to avenge his father’s death on his uncle, yet can’t light on the proper way to do it, so stages an elaborate play to trigger his guilty conscience, etc.” It’s clever and nice and all that, but it’s not deathless art—it’s nothing you would think twice about. A single line of Shakespeare can change all that. Great stories aren’t about “shifting things around, changing the rules” necessarily, but making the old ideas live and breathe as they used to (and still do). Destroying anything for the sake of destruction is pointless, and it’s not storytelling. Only by finding the life in a story can you make people see it again, and want to hear it again. In the same way, the words “I love you” are a tiresome cliche until someone you love says them; then they become an entire world.

I think most people default to ‘story’ when they really mean how a writer writes, or how the story moves, or how the characters speak, or even an idiosyncratic use of punctuation. All of these are elements of style, the unique linguistic thumbprint of a writer who “vitalizes” the story. Take, for example, one of the most told and re-told tales in recent memory: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Indeed, most people know the story much more than the book itself. If the story was truly the thing, every version of the film would be gold. Yet most of the films are curiously earthbound, even comic, in their depiction of a promethean scientist who breaks through the boundaries of life and death. For this very reason, the movies often have to invent characters (Igor is not in the book) and situations (no angry villagers storming the castle) to make it seem more like a “story.” So why did the book itself, written by a girl in her late teens, so inflame the public’s imagination in 1818 and beyond?

Toward the end of the novel, the Creature stands over the body of Victor Frankenstein on Walton’s ship; Walton curses the Creature for his heartless cruelty, to which the Creature responds,

“And do you dream? you think that I was then dead to agony and remorse? He...he suffered not in the consummation of the deed—oh! not the ten-thousandth portion of the anguish that was mine during the lingering detail of its execution. A frightful selfishness hurried me on, while my heart was poisoned with remorse. Think you that the groans of Clerval were music to my ears? My heart was fashioned to be susceptible of love and sympathy; and, when wrenched by misery to vice and hatred, it did not endure the violence of the change, without torture such as you cannot even imagine” (Vol.III, Ch.VII).

Whereas most ‘stories’ of Frankenstein have him a dumb brute, a mere manikin of horror, in the novel he is a thinking, eloquent being,  tormented by his wretched shape. Victor’s indifference spurs him into the crimes that lead, one by one, to the death of everything Victor loves. Yet most of all the Creatures loves him, yet will never receive his father’s embrace. The writing of this passage is poetic and powerful, a cry of anguish from the soul of a young woman whose own father had largely abandoned her, and whose husband (Percy Shelley) seemed capable of a repeat performance. Shelley had lost her mother, her sister, and despite a heart fashioned for “love and sympathy,” she felt herself being bent and twisted into an angry shape. It is impossible not to sympathize with the Creature, though none of this is in the story itself. No, it’s all in the language, the powerful lament of a creature abandoned by his creator. Reading Frankenstein, we feel the unmistakable power of art to move us beyond our petty conceptions of good and evil, the beautiful and the grotesque. Not surprisingly, no film has been able—or even tried—to replicate this linguistic achievement.

By way of a final example, look at the entire range of poetry, from epic poetry to sonnets to a simple love poem. What are the ‘stories’ here? I love you; don’t forget me; journey to the ends of the world; make love to me; leave me alone. Tepid stuff, until the language jumps in, the rhythms of words, the internal rhymes, the metaphors and imagery. In Sonnet 55, Shakespeare means to say “you will live forever in my poetry,” which is the basic story, but instead writes,

Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.

Here we see the limitations of ‘story.’ Or, we see how story is how we tell the story, in what words, in which music. The line that imagines time as something “sluttish,” which “besmears” a stone is genius: for now time can be wiped away, leaving the surface evergreen through the cleansing power of art. Great language is neither stone nor weeds, but a pure light which outlives the “gilded monuments” and the kings that fashioned them. Only the stories will remain when we are dead and gone, and not just any stories, but the ones whose words sing across the ages, tempting us to live again and follow their foolish, headlong journey into life itself. For anyone who loves a good story will always remember—and live for—the power of their timeless words.